Suicides related to work are not included in Health and Safety Executive (HSE) national statistics despite its campaign to improve stress and mental health in the workplace.
The National Hazards Campaign (NHC) estimates that there are at least 600 suicides each year due to pressures at work.
In March, the HSE issued guidance to help employers tackle stress at work and writes on its website that one in four will experience a mental health problem, and that employers have a ‘legal responsibility’ to help.
NHC acting chair Hilda Palmer said: “The HSE figures only includes incidents that have to be reported to them under RIDDOR – it doesn’t include work-related fatal injuries on the road, sea or in the air – or work related suicides of which there are around 600 deaths a year. The HSE accepts it’s a big issue but it still doesn’t record or investigate them.”
An HSE spokesperson responded, saying: “It is not possible to robustly identify a unique link between work activity and suicide as most suicides generally arise out of a very complex and often subjective range of factors. Acts of deliberate self-harm are not considered ‘accidents’ and are not RIDDOR reportable. This does not mean that the general provisions of the Health and Safety at work Act 1974 do not apply; the enforcing authority may, depending on the circumstances, decide that it is appropriate to investigate suicides.”
Nonetheless, criticism was levelled at the HSE after it published its Health and Safety at Work: summary statistics for Great Britain 2019. NHC has long argued that the national statistics are misleading, as they appear to report all workplace deaths when they represent just a fraction.
NHC disputes that there were just 147 workplace deaths in 2018-19. NHC has not updated its own figures yet this year but last year, for example, it estimated that there were at least 1,486 work-related incidents resulting in death.
These work-related fatalities were broken down as 144 deaths reported to the HSE through RIDDOR, 590 deaths through work-related road traffic accidents, 600 suicides due to pressures at work, 100 members of the public killed by work activity, two workers killed on the railways, and 50 workers killed in the sea and air. HSE says that injuries or deaths resulting from incidents in the air or at sea are not included in its statistics because it does not have the regulatory responsibility for these incidents.
Palmer added: “Driving is a huge part of our economy and HSE doesn’t know anything about it – although Unite [the union] has got all these figures and stats on fatigue that puts drivers, and members of the public, at risk.
“But this is actually the tip of the iceberg – the biggest amount of harm is caused by occupational illness.”
NHC is deeply critical that the HSE also does not include the deaths caused by work-related illness in its national statistics. Last year NHC estimated 50,000 deaths were caused by work – 18,000 from cancers, 20,000 from heart disease, 6,000 from respiratory illness and 6,000 from neurological illness.
Palmer also queried why over 18,000 non-fatal injuries – out of 69,208 listed in the HSE report – could not be tied to an age group, which she said indicated shallow and incomplete data.
The downward trend in workplace deaths appears to have plateaued around 2013, and there are concerns the trend may start to reverse. The HSE also reports a reduction in the number of prosecutions, which is a continuing trend.
There were 364 cases prosecuted by HSE and the Scottish Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in 2019, but 493 in 2018, and 554 in 2017. “This downward trend is of great concern,” said Palmer, “because these are the things that are supposed to be creating a credible deterrent to make sure employers obey the law.”
The HSE spokesperson said: “We do not measure our impact simply by counting the number of prosecutions. Combining inspection, other means of enforcement, insight, communications and science, our reach extends much further than our regulatory interventions, important though these are.”
• CIEH responded generally to the HSE figures. “These figures show the number of injuries and incidents of ill-health at work is still far too high," said policy and public affairs executive Ellie Whitlock.
"While these numbers show no signs of going down, there have been significant reductions in resources for health and safety enforcement over the last decade. With fewer inspectors and less inspections taking place, there is a risk of losing vital local intelligence used to target health and safety interventions.
"More needs to be done to improve health and wellbeing in workplaces, particularly in the face of new challenges presented by the modern, fast-changing world of work.”
Work-related deaths in 2018-19 (HSE figures)
- 147 killed at work reported under Riddor
- 12,000 lung disease deaths each year linked to past exposure at work
- 2,500 mesothelioma cancer deaths projected each year
- 13,000 deaths each year linked to exposure of chemicals or dust
Work-related injury and ill health statistics in 2018-19 unless stated otherwise (HSE figures)
- 1.4m ill health cases new or long standing
- 69,208 non fatal injuries reported to employers
- 581,000 workers sustained a non-fatal injury according to self reporting recorded in the Labour Force Survey
- 602,000 stress, depression or anxiety cases new or long standing
- 18,000 cases of breathing or lung problems made worse reported in the LFS
- 498,000 musculoskeletal disorder cases new or long standing
- £5.2bn annual cost of workplace injury in 2017-18
- £9.8bn annual cost of new cases of ill health in 2017-18
- 28.2m working days lost